This post is nearly three weeks late — it’s based on a piece of artwork that appeared on 25 September, and which I wanted to write about immediately.  But it got washed away in the flood of camel necks (which by the way is not over yet), and then in the festival of articular cartilage, then by the whole “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus” thing and the subsequent discussion of amateurs in palaeo, and then by what was already an overdue announcement of my sauropod history paper and the attendant copyright nonsense.  So it’s been a stupidly busy time here at SV-POW! Towers, but now the air has cleared a little, and it’s time to look at this beauty:


Life restoration of NHM R5937 "The Archbishop" (Brachiosauridae incertae sedis), by Nima.


This would be a beautiful piece of art by any standards — the world can always use brachiosaur art! — but what makes this extra special for me is that it is the first ever life restoration of my very own brachiosaur, BHM R5937, the Tendaguru specimen known as The Archbishop.  It’s by SV-POW! regular Nima, and I am absolutely delighted to see it.  It’s very Greg Paul-like, and I mean that in the most positive sense.  (I may not be a fan of Greg’s taxonomic vicissitudes, but his art is just beautiful.)

Over on his blog, Nima has described in detail how he created this piece, and shows four progressively refined versions (of which the one above is the last) — I urge you to check it out if you’re interested in art, brachiosaurs or both.

Nima’s blog-post also includes a brief history of the Archbishop, mostly taken from my 2005 SVPCA talk.  It’s a good summary, but I do have a few comments to make.  (I typed a lot of this in as a comment to the original post, but Blogger ate my comments as usual.)

  • The specimen is not known as M23, and has never been — that is in fact the designation of the Tendaguru quarry from which is was excavated.  Paul (1988) mistakenly conflated the quarry name with a specimen number, and referred to this specimen as BMNH M23, and Glut’s (1977) encyclopaedia perpetuated the error, but it’s always been R5937.
  • “The giant Brachiosaurus finds of the Germans” are now, of course, Giraffatitan.
  • “Controversy lingered” — well, no, not really.  The problem was worse than that: no-one paid a blind bit of notice to the specimen before 2004.
  • “It turns out the double spine claim was totally bogus and unscientific” — well, we don’t really know that yet.  It’s certainly true that none of the prepared vertebrae (five cervicals, two complete dorsals and an additional dorsal spine) have bifid spines; but Migeod reported these from the anterior dorsals, and it’s not clear that we have those.  A fair bit of material remains in jackets, and more has probably been lost or destroyed.  So it is possible, if unlikely, that one day we’ll open one of those jackets and find good evidence for bifid spines.
  • “Close-up of the Archbishop vertebrae (doesn’t look much like the mitre of an archbishop to me, but who knows” — well, the name The Archbishop is not based on any resemblance of the bones to a mitre.  (Nor is it based on anything else.  It’s completely arbitrary.)

Last 0f all, what about the actual picture?  Well, the long, thin, snakelike neck is beautiful art, but I don’t think it’s great science.  The height of the cervicals that we have for this animal show that the neck would have had to be quite a bit dorsoventrally taller than shown here.  And because there were only 13 cervical vertebrae — 12 if you omit the atlas, which is really a whole nother kettle of badgers, a neck bent into a strongly sigmoid pose like this would exhibit noticable kinks at some of the intervertebral joints — as you can see in giraffes when they twist their necks.

That aside, though, this is great.  Again, I am really delighted that it’s out there.  Congratulations to Nima!

Here is an oddity. When the Geological Society sent my the PDF of my sauropod-history paper, their e-mail contained the following rather extraordinary assertions:

We are pleased to provide you with 20 free electronic reprints of your recently published paper to distribute as you wish. These reprints are available as PDF downloads and are available from the following URL

Please note the following important points

1. These electronic reprints may NOT be used for commercial purposes or posted on openly accessible websites, and are subject to the terms and conditions described here:

2. You may forward this message to your co-authors or colleagues in order for them to access the paper also, but do remember that access is restricted to a TOTAL of 20 PDF downloads (unless you otherwise have subscription access to the content). Non-subscribers may purchase additional downloads on a pay-per-view basis.

I think, and I hope you will all agree with me, that the idea of providing a finite number of “electronic reprints” is profoundly misguided and patently unenforcible.  But let’s skip blithely around that and focus on the core issue.

In general, I find it iniquitous that when authors freely contribute their work to journals and books — especially books as spectacularly expensive as the Dinosaur History volume — the publishers try to restrict those authors’ rights to give copies of their own work to their friends and colleagues.  It’s just wrong.  It should be enough that we allow them to publish and sell our work for no fee; that they should then limit what we do with it is — well, I hate to repeat myself, but I can’t think of a better word than: wrong.

The scourge of copyright assignment

Publishers can pull this kind of stunt because they own the work.  In short, they can do what the hell they want with it.  And the reason they own the work is because we blindly hand over copyright to them.  We’ve been doing it for years; decades for those of us who’ve been in the game longer.

Why do we do this?

I know I’ve mentioned this before [Choosing a Journal, Time for the Revolution] but there really is no justification at all for publishers to require authors to sign copyright over to them — yet this practice remains ubiquitous.  And there is no justification for us to keep on rolling over and giving them what they want — yet we do.

Why do we do this?

(I know I already asked that question, but it bears repeating.)

Well, they don’t have this one!

As I went to fill in the ubiquitous copyright assignment form for the history paper, I noticed that it offered a choice between two sections:


Geological Society's copyrght assignment form (except)


As an alternative to the usual “I hereby assign to the Geological Society of London full copyright and all rights” clause (section 2 of the form above), it offers section 3 as follows:

3. To be filled in if copyright does not belong to you

(b) The copyright holder hereby grants the Geological Society of London permission to publish the said contribution in paper, electronic, and facsimile formats, and for electronic capture, reproduction, and licensing in all formats, in whole or in part, now and in perpetuity, in the original and all derivative works and also grants non-exclusive rights to deal with requests from third parties in the manner specified in paragraphs 2 and 4 below.

So I formally transferred copyright to my wife, Fiona:

And filled in section 3 of the form instead of section 2.  Of course, there is no earthly reason why they shouldn’t offer copyright-holding authors the option of just giving the Geological Society the rights it actually needs, but since they don’t do that I was happy to take advantage of the loophole.

And that is why I happily encourage you to download as many copies of the PDF as you wish — have twenty-one of them just for yourself if you like.  It’s mine, I can give you as many copies as I wish. It’s my wife’s, and she’s granted me a non-exclusive licence to give you as many copies as I wish.  [Thanks to DK Fennell for this correction.]

Happy ending, right?

Well, no, actually.  For two reasons.

First, the really extraordinary thing about this is that the published version of my paper includes the copyright statement above, at the bottom of the first page, asserting that the work is copyright the Geological Society of London even though I carefully took explicit steps to ensure that this is not the case.

How did that happen?  I can only assume that the Society, like other publishers, is so used to everyone just blindly signing away copyright that they used their standard boilerplate without even bothering to look at the form I returned to them.  That speaks all sort of bad things.  The world has become a twisted place.

The second reason this isn’t really a happy ending is that I don’t feel great about having retained copyright on a technicality.  We, the authors, shouldn’t have to sneak around giving copyright to our spouses and avoiding the Great Giveaway by means of stealth.  We ought to be simply and flatly refusing to give away copyright when it’s perfectly clear that the publisher doesn’t need it in order to publish.  (Publishers often use language like “In order to expedite the editing and publishing process and enable Wiley-Blackwell to disseminate your Contribution to the fullest extent, we need to have this Copyright Transfer Agreement executed“, but we all know that’s not true.)

So what should we do?

I can see three ways we can avoid giving publishers total ownership of our work.

  1. Simply don’t submit to journals that require copyright transfer.  Most do, but not all.  Among the honorable exceptions are the PLoS journals, and Zoologica Scripta.  If any of you know of others, please shout in the comments.
  2. If using publishers that do require copyright transfer, look for weasely strategies such as the one I used for the history paper; but better is:
  3. Just refuse.  Publishers know they don’t need copyright, and there is an established form for withholding it: the SPARC Addendum.  I’ve not used that before, but it’s time I started.

We must have been mad to have handed over all our stuff for all these years.  What the heck were we thinking?  Time to start taking it back — so we can give it to the world.  After all, the main reason I want to retain my copyright is so that the publisher can’t require me not to post the PDF freely on my own website, and I am sure the same is true of 99% of scientists who want to retain their copyright.

Publishers must not be allowed to be a barrier to the dissemination of science!

You may remember that when I wrote about Amphicoelias diplobrontobarowassea the other day, I rather ungraciously complained that “I don’t want to talk about that.  There are other things I do want to talk about”.  Well, with A. suuwatorneriosaurodocus now firmly dealt with, I can talk about what I wanted to — which is Taylor (2010), a little number that I like to call Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review.  You can download the PDF from my website (more on that subject next time) and get the high-resolution versions of the figures separately if you wish.

Taylor 2010:fig. 3. Early reconstructions of Camarasaurus. Top: Ryder’s 1877 reconstruction, the first ever made of any sauropod, modified from Osborn & Mook (1921, plate LXXXII). Bottom: Osborn & Mook’s own reconstruction. modified from Osborn & Mook (1921, plate LXXXIV).

It’s a comprehensive history of research into sauropod dinosaurs, starting in 1831 with the genera Cardiodon and Cetiosaurus, and bringing us right up to 2008 (which is when the paper was accepted — see below).  I cover this history in five stages:

  • Stage 1: early studies, isolated elements (1841-1870)
  • Stage 2: the emerging picture (1871-1896)
  • Stage 3: interpretation and controversy (1897-1944)
  • Stage 4: the dark ages (1945-1967)
  • Stage 5: the modern renaissance (1968-present)

You could say the the main part of the story begins with Phillips’s (1871) description of Cetiosaurus oxoniensis, the first reasonably complete sauropod, and really kicks into gear with the Marsh-Cope bone wars, but there are plenty of twists and turns between then and now, including — finally — the publication of the table of brachiosaur mass-estimates that I alluded to back in Xenoposeidon week.  [Executive summary: published estimates for the single individual HMN SII have varied by a factor of 5.75.  Wow.]

History of the history paper

This paper had its genesis in the one-day conference convened at the Geological Society of London on 6 May 2008.  [Announcement on Tetrapod Zoology; Tet Zoo report part 1 and part 2].  The extended abstract of my talk has been on my web-site for a long time, and was included in the rather handsome abstracts volume of the conference — which has now been superseded by the proceedings volume containing the full-length papers of which mine is one.

We’d been told to prepare 30-minute talks — a much heftier slot than the 20 minutes we get at SVPCA (or indeed the 15 allowed at SVP, though I wouldn’t know what that’s like as I have never, ever managed to get a talk accepted there).  I tend to move very quickly through my talks anyway, so I prepared a monster presentation of  76  slides (plus another 11 that I had to cut from the talk, but which I left hanging around at the end of the slideshow).  By the way, this is the very talk that my wife, Fiona, fell asleep in the middle of while I was rehearsing it at her.

So I’d prepared a thirty-minute talk that used every second of every minute.  Then on the day of the conference itself, they handed out the schedules, and … the talks were down to twenty-five minutes.  Arrrgh!  I had absolutely no fat to trim in my thirty minutes, so all I could do was talk even faster, and keep going when I reached the 25-minute mark.

Me giving my sauropod-history talk on 6 May 2008 with, apparently, only Eric Buffetaut in the audience. (It was better attended that it seems from this picture!) Photograph by Luis Rey.

So there I was, talking about how Russell and Zheng (1993) pioneered the use of cladistics in sauropod systematics, when the session moderator — our very own Darren Naish — started trying to wave me off the podium.  By the time I was talking about Sander’s (2000) work on the long-bone histology of Tendaguru-Formation sauropods, Darren was edging on to the stage, trying to bring my talk to an end by making moves for the microphone, while I was talking faster and faster in manner more than a little reminiscent of Monty Python’s microphone-stealing sketch.

Poor Darren.  I actually don’t quite recall how things ended up, but as far as I know I got through all my slides before being persuaded to retire, and here for your edification is the Conclusions slide.

Anyway, with the conference over, all of us who’d given talks were invited to contribute papers to a proceedings volume, and that’s what’s just come out.  (According to the Geological Society’s own page, the book won’t be available to buy until 19 November, but all the PDFs are available to download to those who have the relevant access rights.)

Is my paper worth reading?  For seasoned palaeontologists, much of what I cover is going to be familiar ground, though I hope most people will find one or two nuggets of interesting new information in there.  But perhaps it will be most useful as a primer for people new to the field, or first approaching sauropods having previously worked on other groups.

Edited volumes vs. journals

You know how some with papers, you submit them, they go through review and then … nothing?  I’ve heard horror stories of papers that have been in press for ten years or more, and I am relieved to say that I’ve never experienced that kind of delay.  But the reviewed, revised and resubmitted version of my sauropod-history manuscript was accepted and in press as of January 2009, so this has been the best part of two years coming.

I think this is pretty much standard for edited volumes, because they are basically stalled until all the contributing authors have got their jobs done.  To be fair to the Geological Society, who were the publishers in this case, I think they’ve done a nice job on the layout, and they got all my proof corrections done.  But still: nearly two years in press is a looong time.  And the end result is that the paper is in a book that most people will consider very expensive — $190 at£95 at — which means that fewer people will read it than I would like.  (I will talk more about the price in a subsequent post.)

So would I do it again?  This paper is my first contribution to an edited volume, and although I’m pleased to have done it this time, I think it will take a particularly special opportunity for me to do it again: a book that I wouldn’t want not to be in, such as another of the all-sauropods-all-the-time volumes that glutted our shelves in the glorious year of 2005.

Taylor 2010:fig. 6. Two classic sauropod paintings by Knight. Left: swamp-bound ‘Brontosaurus’ (now Apatosaurus), painted in 1897, with static terrestrial Diplodocus in background. Right: athletic Diplodocus, painted in 1907.

Journals are fundamentally wired to move faster: they handle manuscripts on an individual basis, then push out a volume according to a schedule, and your work goes in as soon as there’s a free slot. That can hardly help but be a more efficient model than the edited-volume approach where, however efficiently I get my work done, it can’t be published until 21 other authors have done theirs.

For a much more distressing example, consider my two remaining in-press manuscripts, those defining the clades Sauropoda and Sauropodomorpha for the PhyloCode companion volume.  (These are multiple-author works, as we wanted to represent a consensus view among multiple sauropod/sauropodomorph workers.)

I was first invited to put together the Sauropoda entry on 5 March 2007, and told to send it “at your earliest convenience”.  I’d put together an initial draft by 11 March, which I circulated to all the co-authors on that date.  Because of the wording of the invitation, I told the co-authors that “timelines are very tight for this work — I really need to get a submission back to the editors within a week or so. So if you’re in a position to contribute, I’d appreciate it if you could do so as soon as possible.”  Then on 12 March, we were invited to contribute the Sauropodomorpha entry as well, so we worked on both of these in parallel.

All five authors worked hard and quickly on multiple drafts of both of these entries, and we bashed our way through real — though polite — disagreements about the most appropriate definitions to use.  (I’ll say right now that it was a pleasure to work with all the co-authors, and I would be delighted to work with any of them again if the opportunity arose.)  Because of the difficulties of co-ordinating the work across three continents, it took a little longer than we’d hoped to get the manuscripts finished and polished, but we submitted them both on 17 April, 43 days after the initial invitation was issued.

And now here we are, three and a half years later, and nothing has happened.  For all I know, the authors haven’t even all submitted their manuscripts yet — I know they hadn’t a year ago, we can only hope that another twelve months has been long enough for them to get their fingers out.

Really.  It makes you want to weep.


Taylor 2010:fig. 1. Historically significant isolated sauropod elements. (a) The holotype tooth of Cardiodon in labial and distal views, modified from Owen (1875a, plate IX, figs 2 and 3); (b) anterior caudal vertebra of Cetiosaurus brevis in anterior view, part of the holotype, photograph by the author; (c) holotype right humerus of Pelorosaurus in anterior view, modified from Mantell (1850, plate XXI, fig. 1b); and (d) lectotype dorsal vertebra of Ornithopsis (see Blows 1995, p. 188) in anterior view, exposing pneumatic cavities owing to erosion of the anterior articular surface, modified from Owen (1875a, plate IX, fig. 1). The scale bar is 5 cm for (a), 10 cm for (b) and (d), and 30 cm for (c).

And now, on to a happier thought:

My dissertation is 60% published!

I was very taken with Andy Farke’s recent post Crossing the Finish Line for the Dissertation on his fine blog, The Open Source Paleontologist.  In it, he celebrates the fact that all the chapters of his dissertation have now been published as peer-reviewed papers.  As I said in a comment, I like the perspective that you’re not really done with your dissertation until you’ve made it redundant.  I’ve heard too many tales about people who sit on their dissertations for years, always meaning to publish the chapters but never quite getting around to it, until they were obsolete.

So my goal is to avoid that fate.  Instead, in emulation of Andy, I want to get all five of my chapters out there in the world as soon as possible.  So here’s the score:

  • Chapter 1. Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review — published in the Geological Society special volume.
  • Chapter 2. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914) — published in JVP.
  • Chapter 3. An unusual new neosauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Beds Group of East Sussex, England — published in Palaeontology
  • Chapter 4. A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, U.S.A. — in review at a journal that, once revisions are submitted, tends to get papers out pretty quickly.
  • Chapter 5. Vertebral morphology and the evolution of long necks in sauropod dinosaurs — in revision after having been rejected for what I frankly thought were specious reasons, but let’s not get into that.

With a trailing wind, I could conceivably be finished by the end of the calendar year.  But realistically that would have to classified as a optimistic schedule.

Ah well.  Onward and upward.


Taylor, M. (2010). Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 343 (1), 361-386 DOI: 10.1144/SP343.22

In an interesting comment on Matt’s “Amphiocoelias brontodiplodocus” post, an anonymous commenter wrote (among much else):

As for the paper itself, it does point out something that may become a future problem for paleontologists. I know of several amateur and commercial paleontologists who believe they aren’t allowed to write peer-reviewed papers to be published in journals because they aren’t professional paleontologists or work at a university (in fact, this even applies to a couple museum paleontologists who work at non-university public museums).

I started to write a reply to this, then realised it was important enough to merit its own post — so here it is.

The amateur and commercial palaeontologists alluded to in the comment are wrong, plainly and simply. Anyone can submit a manuscript to any journal[*]. And the evaluation of submitted manuscripts is supposed to be done strictly on the basis of the scientific content of the manuscript itself, not on the reviewers’ opinions of the individuals involved. [I’m not saying that ad hominem reviews never happen — I’ve had one myself, when my very first submission was rejected in part because I had no publication track-record, which introduces an obvious chicken-and-egg problem. But this is very, very much the exception rather than the rule, and in fact in 40 or so reviews that I’ve had up to this point, I think that was the only example of this happening.]

So the commenter’s amateur friends should just go right ahead and start participating in the world of professional palaeontology. They’re welcome, so long as their stuff is good. Thing is, “participating in the world of professional palaeontology” entails things like copy-editing the careless mistakes out of your manuscript, getting your citations and references to match, reading and understanding the existing literature to recognise where your work fits in and what actual evidence supports the position you’re setting out to overturn, submitting the manuscript to a recognised journal, and putting it through peer-review. The brontodiplodocus manuscript is being dismissed by the professional community because it didn’t do any of these things — not because the authors aren’t professionals.


Galiano and Albersdorfer 2010:fig. 11A.  Right lateral view of “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus” specimen DQ-TY, dorsal, sacral, and anterior caudal vertebrae articulated with ilium, partially exposed in field jacket.


The anonymous comment continues:

Or that if they donate their specimens to a public institution so they can be publicly available they will be barred from studying the specimens and/or they will go to someone else to name. It doesn’t help that some paleontologists actively cultivate this view towards amateur and commercial paleontologists.

Who does? I have never heard of a professional palaeontologist denigrating an amateur or commercial for donating their scientifically significant specimens to a public institution. Never.

If an amateur or commercial paleontologist dots all their i’s and cross their t’s, subject their papers out to peer review, and place the holotype fossils in a publicly available institution, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to publish stuff?

They are allowed.

I don’t want to keep bashing on and on with the obvious example here, but I myself am an amateur: in the seven years since I started to work seriously on palaeo, I’ve generated a total palaeontology income of £215, for an annual income of £30 p.a. (That’s a £40 interview fee and a 200 Euro travel grant.) I do all my work in my spare time, fitted in around a demanding day-job. I am in fact the very model of an “amateur”, i.e. one who does it for love rather than for money. That’s not stopped me from getting my work published — some of it in very good venues. It needn’t stop anyone else, either, if they’re prepared to do the work.

A better example, and one that Matt mentioned last time, is the man who is arguably the most respected in the whole field of sauropod palaeontology: Jack McIntosh, whose careful, detailed work over the last few decades has all been done in his spare time, and which constitutes a legacy of important papers that are still much referred to today.

The bottom line in the professional-vs.-amateur dichotomy is not in fact whether you get paid for what you do; it’s whether you conduct yourself according to your discipline’s professional standards or not. And that is a choice that everyone in the field (whether paid or not) makes for themselves. I know of people who are paid to do palaeo and who do not conduct themselves like professionals (though, thankfully, not many of them); and I know of unpaid people who are functional as professionals.

For this reason, I actually think that professional/amateur is unhelpful nomenclature when discussing these matters.  But  we’re stuck with it, and I’m not going to try to change the world.  Just remember, everyone: in the field of palaeontology, you’ll be considered professional if and only if you conduct yourself as a professional.

That is all.

[*] OK, “Anyone can submit a manuscript to any journal” is a very slight oversimplification.  There are a few journals that don’t accept unsolicited submissions, or that only accept them from members of a specific society, or what have you.  But these area vanishingly small proportion of the whole journal-space, and no-one should be put off from submitting to the other 99% of journals because of the existence of this 1%.

I wasn’t going to write about this, partly because it’s so darn depressing, but mostly because in the wake of this comment it seemed like the “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus” paper was being withdrawn, and to quote something Mike said off-list, I was happier about the retraction than I was sad about the implied revisionism. But then Henry Galliano wrote:

Although the paper has still not been completed, no changes have been made altering it conclusions. Interestingly, despite the 4000 recent hits and downloads from our website, it is surprising no evidence has been submitted challenging our claims.

If it’s really supposed to be an internal manuscript/press release type thing, why brag about the lack of criticism? Did it ever occur to you that we might be holding off out of respect, to give you an avenue of retreat where you could perhaps salvage a few scraps of dignity? But if you’re going to call us out for not tearing apart this joke of a paper, then stand by.

In the previous post, Mike wrote:

In other words, we’re being asked to believe that the new specimens are more different from all other Morrison diplodocids than any of them are from each other.  And yet we’re brought to this conclusion by the very animals that are apparently not as similar.  It’s as though I discovered dogs, and thereby concluded that lions, cheetahs and house-cats are are all the same species.

No, it’s way, way worse. Because, claims of the authors to the contrary, “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus” is not some kind of morphological outlier among Morrison diplodocids. From where I stand, it looks like it’s right in the middle. So it’s as though I discovered ocelots and thereby concluded that lions, cheetahs, and housecats were all the same thing.

If no apatosaurs had ever been found, and they got the first one, and then concluded that all the apatosaurines were one taxon and all the diplodocines were another, that would at least make some kind of sense, in that they’d be drawing their taxonomic distinctions along actual phylogenetic lines. Then it would be a fairly straightforward lumper/splitter fight. In the actual event, I’m sad to say that it’s the “A. brontodiplodocus” proponents against the reality-based community.

Back to Henry’s statement about the “surprising” lack of evidence to the contrary: dude, don’t do this to yourself. We thought you were on the right track with the implied retraction from your earlier comment. You’ve been one of the white hats, but if you go down this dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will!

It’s not at all “surprising” that no one has submitted evidence to the contrary. The evidence is in the 133 years’ worth of careful morphological and phylogenetic work that you blew right past on the way to nominating your new animal, at least implicitly, as TEH MOSTEST IMPORTANT DIPLODOCID EVAR!!11eleventy! Your material is awesome, and I don’t doubt that you’ve got a new animal on your hands, but the idea that it is one of only two diplodocids in the Morrison–or worldwide–and all the others are morphs of the same thing, is both suspiciously convenient for you, and so outrageously extreme that it would take a mountain of work (that is not presented in the paper) to demonstrate. In addition to the gross, obvious morphological differences, it would be really nice to know why there are geographic, stratigraphic, and paleoecological differences among the other Morrison diplodocids. Doesn’t the work of Dodson et al. (1980), Turner & Peterson (1999), and Foster (2003, 2007), just for starters, count for anything? Instead of boasting about the uncontested status of your claims, how about doing enough work to convince us to take them seriously in the first place? People who take the time to do reasonable morphological comparisons and phylogenetic work that doesn’t hail from an opium den have better things to do than exhaustively smack down every act of Hoser taxonomy that leaks onto teh intarwebz in the first two days. Give us a minute to get over our collective shock, and in the meantime, make up your mind about what the document is. Is it supposed to be considered published, or not? If so, it’s fair game for criticism, but don’t deny that you’re at least attempting acts of taxonomy. If not, don’t beg us to criticize it. You may get a lot more than you wished for.

Sadly, this will probably go down in popular opinion as a clash between academic and commercial paleontologists, or between credentialed paleontologists and hobbyists.  It shouldn’t. I don’t care if someone is employed by a university or a rock shop, or whether they have any degrees in the field. All I care about is the quality of the work. (Repeatability, which necessitates that specimens be properly curated in accredited museums to ensure perpetual access to future researchers, is an inherent component of that quality.) Jack McIntosh is a physicist, and as far as I know never got any formal training in paleontology. But that’s irrelevant, because he taught himself by looking at literally thousands of specimens and reading everything he could get his hands on, and because his papers are as exhaustively researched as one could hope for. As Robert McKee wrote of Steven Pressfield, you can’t read Jack’s papers without being overwhelmed by “the work, the work, all the work” behind them. In contrast, I couldn’t read the “A. brontodiplodocus” paper without be overwhelmed by the complete disregard–and indeed implicit contempt–for all of the work that people from Cope and Marsh to Jerry Harris and David Lovelace have done on the admittedly knotty problem of Morrison sauropod diversity.

Taxonomy is facing a crisis, brought on by two things: at least for some charismatic clades, Hoser taxonomists potentially outnumber actual taxonomists (although even one is bad enough, as herpetologists have found); and there is essentially no filtering on what counts. Anyone in the world can whip up whatever uninformed BS they want and send a certain number of hardcopies off to libraries, and according to the ICZN their crappy work counts and the rest of us just have to deal with it. And the problem is only going to get worse in the shiny digital future as electronic publication removes the already minor inconvenience associated with “publishing” acts of taxonomy. I can think of a handful of possible outcomes:

  • Working scientists are going to bog down in endlessly putting out the fires of Hoser taxonomy.
  • We’ll install some kind of de jure filter to deal with Hoser taxonomy.
  • We’ll collectively decide to ignore acts of Hoser taxonomy, which will constitute a de facto filter.

For my part, I think the ICZN’s policy of noninterference in cases like this is taking a sound principle to the point of lunacy. It’s like I walked up to a policeman, punched him in the nose, and told him he couldn’t arrest me because my assault counted as protected speech (on reflection, I’ll bet this actually happens in Berkeley). Of the options above, I suspect that we’ll end up with the third, and I won’t be entirely happy about that, because I also suspect that some credentialed academics will want to ignore the work of commercial paleontologists and hobbyists just because they’re not credentialed academics. Which would be wrong. We want to sort the work based on its quality, not who produced it.

Which is an interesting position for me to come to, given what I’ve said here in the past about filters. It was easier to deal with the thought of completely open publication when the waste products weren’t landing on my lawn. But I still think that this is the way things are going. In which case, post-hoc criticism of self-published works is often going to be the only filter we get. The comment thread is open. Filter away!


  • Dodson, P., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Bakker, R.T., and McIntosh, J.S. 1980. Taphonomy and paleoecology of the dinosaur beds of the Jurassic Morrison Formation. Paleobiology 6:208-232.
  • Foster, J.R. 2003. Paleoecological analysis of the vertebrate fauna of the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic), Rocky Mountain Region, U.S.A. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. Bulletin 23.
  • Foster, J.R. 2007. Jurassic West: The Dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation and Their World. Indiana University Press. 389pp.
  • Turner, C.E., Peterson, F., 1999. Biostratigraphy of dinosaurs in the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of the Western Interior, U.S.A. Pp. 77–114 in Gillette, D.D. (Ed.), Vertebrate Paleontology in Utah. Utah Geological Survey Miscellaneous Publication 99-1.

Well, this is frustrating.  Over on the VRTPALEO mailing list, all the talk at the moment is of the new paper by Henry Galiano and Raimund Albersdörfer (2010), describing their rather comically named new species Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus.  And to be fair, the material they’re describing is sensational, and the photographs in the paper are pretty good.


Galiano and Albersdorfer (2010:fig 10A-B): Above, cervical vertebrae 7-10 of Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus specimen DQ-TY; below, corresponding cervical vertebrae of Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84, modified from Hatcher (1901: plate III)


But I don’t want to talk about that.

There are other things I do want to talk about, but I can’t help feeling that whatever else we cover here at the moment, everyone is going to be thinking “Yes, but what about Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus?”  So I don’t think I can go on to write about the things I want to before we’ve at least acknowledged the existence of this paper.

And yet, and yet …  I have so many problems with this paper, even before we get to the controversial part, namely the conclusion that Diplodocus, Barosaurus, Apatosaurus, SupersaurusSuuwassea, Tornieria and Eobrontosaurus are all congeneric with Amphicoelias — more precisely, conspecific with the single species Amphicoelias altus.

Aside from the a priori unlikelihood of that, we have these problems:

  • First, and maybe most important, the specimens described in this paper are all privately owned, so whatever conclusions might be gleaned from examining them are not replicable by other scientists.  For the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, that’s a deal-breaker right there (and I am in full agreement).
  • Second, the new paper doesn’t seem to be published: at least, no-one’s yet claimed that it exists in numerous identical hardcopies, so for ICZN purposes the new name is a nomen nudum.  (That will surely change, though: I am confident that Dinosauria International, LLC are perfectly capable of printing off a hundred copies and sending them out to libraries.)
  • Third, the paper doesn’t seem to have been peer-reviewed: at least, there’s nothing in the acknowledgements that indicates that it was.  It doesn’t seem to have been edited in anything like the usual sense either.
  • Fourth, there is mechanical evidence of enormous sloppiness in the composition of the paper.  For example, many cited papers are not included in the REFERENCES CITED section, and most of the references that are included are not in fact cited in the paper.  As an example, my own Taylor et al. (2009) is cited but not referenced, while Taylor and Naish (2005) is referenced but not cited.  Lots of Upchurch papers in the bibliography are never cited.  That doesn’t give me confidence about the rest of the work.
  • Likewise, the paper is rife with typos and grammar errors, such as this from page 28: “A. louisae is by far the most widely acclaimed example, and B. excelsus skeleton mounted and exhibited in the Peabody museum. Despite the familiarity of these Apatosaurus specimens various aspects of it [sic] skeleton remain poorly known.”  Not a killer, but again it doesn’t give me confidence.
  • brontodiplodocus” is a stupid name.

Against that backdrop, consider the radical taxonomic hypothesis.  All Morrison formation diplodocids (and some from elsewhere) are considered to belong to a single species, Amphicoelias altus … except for the new specimens, which belong to the new and separate species A. brontodiplodocus.  In other words, we’re being asked to believe that the new specimens are more different from all other Morrison diplodocids than any of them are from each other.  And yet we’re brought to this conclusion by the very animals that are apparently not as similar.  It’s as though I discovered dogs, and thereby concluded that lions, cheetahs and house-cats are are all the same species.

So this is not just a matter of extreme taxonomic lumping: it’s weirder than that.  It’s “all the other stuff is just a single species except the one we’ve discovered which is different”.

The point

As Tom Holtz is fond of saying, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.  I’m not going to come out and say it’s impossible that all Morrison diplodocids except the new specimens were conspecific.  But if I were the one setting out to propose such a heterodox hypothesis, I would do myself every possible favour: I’d do it from properly accessioned specimens in public museums, I’d publish in a recognised peer-reviewed journal, I’d take care to get my nomenclature right, match up my citations and references, and generally dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

Until that’s done with this new material, I’m not sure there’s much point in investing a lot more effort in evaluating the phylogenetic/taxonomic claims.

(Henry, I know you’re an occasional reader here.  Sorry to be so negative, but I’m sure you’ll understand that I have to call ’em as I see ’em.)


Isn’t it funny how often an idea seems to pop up all over the place at about the same time?  The classic example is the independent and more or less simultaneous invention of calculus by both Isaac Newton and Wilhelm Leibniz, but similar kinds of things seem to happen quite often.

And there’s something similar going on right now.  After a century of everyone ignoring the role of cartilage in dinosaur anatomy, suddenly everyone’s up and running all at once:

  • Here at SV-POW!, Matt, Darren and I have been running the series on camel necks (which by the way isn’t over yet — stay tuned!)  In that series we have repeatedly made the point that “it is useless to try to reach conclusions about neck posture based on osteology alone. We need to understand the soft-tissue systems — especially the articular cartilage — as well”.
  • Meanwhile, over on his blog Jurassic Journeys, Matt Bonnan has been writing about “long bones and the space between“, emphasising how we can’t really understand sauropod locomotion when we don’t know the true sizes and shapes that the long-bones had in life.
  • Independently of that, Heinrich Mallison, on the Palaeontologia Electronica blog, wrote about the importance of cartilage in his Plateosaurus digital modelling projects.  I highly recommend reading this very relevant article if only for its section headings, which sum up the state of play perfectly: Ask your doctor for advice // Palaeontology is an interdisciplinary science — we just tend to forget // Have you ever read the Journal of International Orthopaedics? // How do these go together? Where’s the manual? HELP!
  • The next thing we know, Casey Holliday and his colleagues wrote about the same issue — not merely blogging, but producing a long-awaited peer-reviewed article in PLoS ONE, “Cartilaginous Epiphyses in Extant Archosaurs and Their Implications for Reconstructing Limb Function in Dinosaurs“.  Casey and his group have gone much further than the rest of us: rather than just whining about the problem of cartilage, they’ve taken steps to solve it — see below for details.
  • Finally, it turns out that Dave Hone has had a blog entry on this subject in the works at Archosaur Musings for a year or more.

It’s a pretty amazing confluence of thought, and the Holliday et al. paper really couldn’t have come at a better time.  It gives us, for the first time, qualitative estimates of the thickness of articular cartilage in limb-bones.  They dissected birds and alligators, measured their limb bones before and after the removal of their cartilage caps, compared the measurements, and determined what they called cartilage correction factors (CCFs) that quantify the increase in limb length when cartilage is included.  They also examined the osteological correlates of extensive articular cartilage, and drew conclusions about the likely form and function of these structures in sauropods (and, yes, I suppose, other dinosaurs as well).

This all ties in nicely with a long-running background project of mine, first presented at Progressive Palaeontology in 2005, and then again at the German sauropod-fest in 2008.  While Holliday et al. were investigating the thickness of articular cartilage, I was thinking in a very naive way about its area as part of a study tentatively entitled Upper limits on the mass of land animals estimated through the articular area of limb-bone cartilage.  The slides for the talk are available, and contain a Godzilla joke that will be hauntingly familiar to anyone who saw my talk on neck elongation at SVPCA this year.

Poorly executed slide from my 2005 Progressive Palaeontology talk. Despite the clumsy graphics, the point should be clear: that the area of articular cartilage available to withstand static and locomotory forces depends hugely on how extensive the cartilage caps are, and on their shape.

I ought to be clear that my work on this was very preliminary and that I am, as usual, years behind where I wanted to be in terms of getting this written up rigorously.  In fact the talk ended with a slide in which I pointed that I was pretty confident that “my figures are correct within a factor of 756”.  And I stand by that :-)

My point is just this: suddenly there’s a visible swell of palaeontologists all saying the same thing: that we can’t expect to understand how the skeletons of extinct animals worked by looking only at their bones, which is a bit of a shame when their bones are usually all we have.  The Holliday et al. paper (2010) is a very welcome first step towards wrasslin’ with this problem as it deserves.

Oh, and it’s open access — go read it!


Roadside reptile rampage!

October 5, 2010

What makes America great? The Constitution, the Grand Canyon, and the Statue of Liberty would probably make most peoples’ short lists. I’d also nominate chili cheeseburgers, the fact that we occasionally elect lunatics to high office just to keep the rest of the world from relaxing too much, and, of course, roadside dinosaurs.

Now, I know that there are dinosaur parks in other countries. Hell, dinosaur parks were invented in other countries. But I ask you: can you name another nation on earth wherein a bloody civil war that sunk the entire country into decades of social and political unrest is celebrated by imagining that it had been fought against freakin’ dinosaurs? (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, click here for more awesome that you are probably prepared for.) I submit that you cannot. No dinosaurs manning the guillotines in Paris, or the machine guns in St. Petersburg. I thought that W.J.T. Mitchell’s The Last Dinosaur Book was pretty darned loopy, but the chapter on how Americans celebrate being American by putting up gigantic dinosaurs all over the place struck a sympathetic chord in my heart. Because whatever you may want to believe to the contrary, we do put up gigantic dinosaurs all over the place. And if you’ve spent much time on the fabled open roads of this great land–which occupy even greater mythological space than our beloved saurians–you’ve seen ’em.

Case in point: the dinosaurs of Yucca Valley, California. These were a surprise to me when I discovered them this past weekend. I was on the road to Joshua Tree for a star party, and you can head on over to 10 Minute Astronomy for that end of this two-part inter-blog cross-country tale of national champion harmonica players, florescent arthropods, and welded scrap metal. Here in Part Dos  I am only dealing with the saurischians.

And, oddly enough, they were all saurischians: a T. rex, two spinosaurs, and a mother and baby sauropod. All arrayed around the fence enclosing some kind of real estate office, right along California Highway 62 at the east end of the town of Yucca Valley. No signs with the dinosaurs, and no explanation of the connection, if any, between them and the business. Although the attraction is not that hard to fathom.

Also, I was happy to see that whereas the three stinkin’ theropods are unfenced and unchained, the sauropods are protected behind a spiky fence, and held down with both ropes and chains. Which, I admit, seems a bit excessive. But it also apparently means that potential giant-welded-dino thieves in the greater Yucca Valley area prefer sauropods, which I take as a sign of natural discernment and good taste in the population at large.

What does all of this mean? In part, it means I should probably revisit my policy on not blogging after midnight. But also, a local guy armed only with welding equipment and a pile of scrap metal decided that the best way to promote his business was by putting up some roadside dinosaurs. He could have built a State of Liberty or a St. Louis Arch or a moon rocket. But nobody would have stopped for those. People stop for roadside dinosaurs.

One more, for the road, as it were: an homage to Jerry Harris.